Writers Worth: When to Call Bullshit

When you ask Jennifer Mattern for a guest post, what you’re not going to get is a cookie-cutter, rah-rah, you-can-do-it, smoke-up-your-skirt kind of post that cheers you on and encourages you through positive reinforcement.

What you will get is a direct, no-bullshit post that tells the raw truth, even if it stings.

Jenn doesn’t tell you something sucks because she has something better to offer. She tells you because you need to know it in order to make a better decision.

It’s why I love her. She can give you a reality check. She can wake you up. And she can make it so that the mistake you’re about to make won’t happen because you know better or you’re afraid she’ll find out where you live and shake the hell out of you.

The former is absolutely the way she works. The latter is why people succeed. Hey, fear is as good a motivator as anything. 😉

Okay, so she won’t show up at your door and shake you (I don’t think — or will she?). But she will certainly give you a verbal wake-up call.

Today, Jenn shows us how to weed out the BS advice.

Bullshit Freelance Writing Advice New Writers Should Ignore

by Jennifer Mattern

When you begin a new freelance writing career, it’s not always easy to know where to start. Should you specialize or write about anything and everything? How much should you charge? How can you find your first freelance writing clients?

Fortunately, there are plenty of other freelancers out there willing to give you good advice on building your fledgling freelance writing business.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of other freelancers out there happy to dole out bullshit advice while earning a pretty penny off the backs of new writers like you.

Ultimately, it falls on you to vet your sources of information so you don’t follow bad advice that can set your freelance career back for years, or even lead to its failure. A good place to start is being able to identify common bits of bad advice.

Here are five pieces of bullshit freelance writing advice you can safely ignore.

You must start at the bottom.

When someone says you need to “start at the bottom” in your freelance writing career, what they mean is you should work for free or for low-paying clients to build initial clips.

Bullshit.

What they really mean is they had to start with unpaid and low-paying gigs to build a portfolio, so they think all other new freelance writers should be subjected to the same.

Now, are there cases where this is more likely to occur? Sure. If you want to freelance exclusively for magazines, you might start with smaller regional or trade publications for example. But it’s still not always necessary.

The right contacts, the right credentials, and the right pitch can go a long way. I know writers who went right into well-paying national publications. Does that mean you will too? No. But it also means you don’t necessarily have to start at the bottom.

The thing is, I more often see this advice given in relation to online writing like web copywriting and freelance blogging. And the bad advice usually revolves around you having to use guest posts.

Double bullshit.

There’s even less of a reason to settle for little-to-no pay when you write for the web. Mid-level to pro-level online writing gigs are plentiful if you bother learning how to find them. (Hint: The best freelance writing jobs are often unadvertised.)

Newsflash: The writers giving you this advice to settle for less didn’t know how to do better for themselves when they were starting out. Why would you want to take advice based on someone else’s marketing failures? Click To Tweet You shouldn’t.

So no. You don’t have to build clips writing things like unpaid guest posts. Those aren’t freelance writing clips anyway. While it’s okay to highlight them somewhere, your portfolio isn’t the right place for them. That’s to showcase freelance work you’ve done for clients – people who valued your work enough to pay for it.

Another issue? The most valuable guest posts aren’t ones you’ll write as a new freelancer. They’re the thought leadership pieces you’ll publish later when you’re a trusted source. If you have relevant experience in your specialty area from your pre-freelance days, that’s fine. You’re good to go. But if you don’t, and you’re starting with guest posting, you’re doing things half-assed backward. First, you need to have something to say.

The same applies to extremely low-paying clients like content mills or “contributor networks.” The clips aren’t always the reputation boost you expect. And the reality is, even if an unpaid or poorly-paid post does help you land a gig later, a paid post could have done the same thing. And, you know… you would have been paid. That’s the point of freelancing after all.

If you’re going to write for little to no pay to build clips, do it by volunteering for a respectable nonprofit organization (or one of their publications – many nonprofits have them). Make it one you would support anyway. And do it either during your off-hours or your marketing time. It shouldn’t be a substitute for billable hours. Then you’ll have a clip from a reputable source, and it’s good PR for your business in the process.

You need to pitch… and a lot.

Pitching and I have a complicated relationship.

On one hand, I come from a public relations background where pitches are an essential part of the job, from media relations to fundraising. On the other hand, I advocate for an approach I call query-free freelancing, where you focus on a combination of PR and inbound marketing (much of what’s now labeled “content marketing” – old tools, new name).

I’m a big believer in attracting the right clients to you instead of you seeking them out, sending queries, making cold calls, and applying to job ads. The leads are warm. They come to you already wanting to hire you. They’re often willing to pay more. And you’re in the position of accepting or rejecting what you want rather than waiting on approval from someone else.

So I can tell you for a fact you don’t “need” to pitch a lot to be a successful freelance writer. Yet I’ve seen some folks dole out advice telling you it’s an absolute necessity – the only way even.

Bullshit.

They’ll also tell you pitching is a numbers game. And they’re right on that one. A relatively small percentage of prospects you pitch are going to respond and hire you.

The problem is it becomes all about the pitching and not nearly enough about what comes first. That means pitches are often handled poorly.

It doesn’t matter if you send out 300 pitches if you don’t know what you’re doing. Lousy queries and cold calls do you no good. And yet I routinely see bloggers telling new freelancers to pitch, pitch, pitch.

They often leave out things that make pitches more effective – true personalization (not just plugging in names and new article ideas for each), attractive credentials (which you might not have yet), and relationships in the community you’re pitching (which you also might not have).

Now look. I might take a query-free approach to freelance writing. But I also have the PR and marketing background to make that work for me. It may or may not be something you can replicate. And I’m not against pitching. I’m against bad pitching.

When these bloggers tell you to pitch heavily right away, they’re doing you a disservice because they’re not helping you lay the groundwork first.

So no. Depending on the type of freelance writing you want to do, sending a never-ending stream of pitches isn’t necessary.

Should you pitch if you’re new? Of course it’s worth trying. It’ll be one of the quickest ways to get in front of hand-picked prospects while you build the platform that will attract them later. But do it responsibly. Numbers matter. But knowing what you’re doing, and being able to back your pitches up, matters more.

And if you find you absolutely despise pitching and it just isn’t working for you… stop. You don’t need anyone’s permission. Just work out a new marketing strategy that puts you at the intersection of your target clients and your strengths.

You need to do “X” every day.

Bullshit.

Bullshit. Bullshit. Bull. Shit.

There is nothing you need to do “every day” to be a successful freelance writer. And, yet again, this is advice I see given to writers like you all the time.

“You need to send pitches every day.”

Bullshit.

“You need to blog every day.”

Bullshit.

“You need to write every day.”

Also… wait for it…

Bullshit.

There is not a single thing you must do every day as a freelance writer. And there is not a single thing which, when done every day, guarantees your success as a freelance writer.

You will (or should) take days off.

You are allowed to batch tasks in any way you please, giving them assigned days rather than “every day” commitments if you want to.

Your schedule does not have to look like anyone else’s.

If doing something every single day is the only way you can stay focused, keep your forward momentum, or whatever, that’s fine. Do it. But the fact you, or any other writer, has to do that does not mean you get to put that on everyone else.

It’s far more important you come up with a plan that works for you. Then stick with it.

The “every day” nonsense ultimately comes down to consistency. That’s important. But you can build consistency and good habits without forcing them to be daily ones.

You should sign up for a freelance writing course.

Actually, you probably shouldn’t.

Certainly not if you’re new to the freelance writing world.

Definitely not from any “professional” freelancer who’s only been in this field for a few years.

Funny thing though. These are often the people pushing their fellow (newer) writers to take freelance writing courses – their freelance writing courses.

Why?

They can’t earn the living they want actually freelancing, so they’re earning it by selling to you instead. This is a ridiculous trend these days from the internet marketing crowd, and far too many freelancers have jumped on board.

The problem is many of these writers offering courses, promising you a successful start to your freelance writing career, aren’t even close to being experts yet. (But they play them on the internet.)

This is why they don’t target their more experienced colleagues with their super-awesome freelance writing courses. Those colleagues can see right through them. They’re counting on newer writers like you not being able to.

I have a simple rule when it comes to accepting advice-oriented guest posts on my freelance writing blog, and I highly recommend it when vetting fellow freelancers offering courses:

They must have been in business for at least five years (and ideally full-time).

Why? Because around half of businesses fail within five years.

If someone can’t make it that long and show they’re at least in that upper 50%, as far as I’m concerned they haven’t reached teaching territory yet. They’re still learning. They’re still proving they can build a sustainable business of their own. And all they can generally teach are tactics (things they’ve often learned from someone else who might be an actual expert), not long-term strategy. And going into a new freelance business with a tactics-oriented approach simply isn’t smart. You can do better.

The other kind of course you’ll often find is the “here’s how I earned $XXXX per month and you can too!” variety. What’s the problem with that? Nothing I suppose, if you want to pay to read a case study of one freelancer talking about their own career which is highly unlikely to be an ideal model for your own. Unless you’re in the same specialty, with a similar background, with similar interests and skills as far as marketing goes (these often revolve around a single marketing tactic the “instructor” got lucky with), you can find better places to learn.

And don’t be fooled by free courses. Those in the insta-expert crowd frequently use them to rope you into their email lists where they’ll pitch you on their (equally-unqualified) premium courses or ebooks later. And free or paid, the risk of bad advice from inexperienced freelancers is much too high.

If you’re convinced you must take a freelance writing course, look for people who have been around a while.

Look for freelancers who have been earning a living through that freelance work for a significant amount of time and not those who largely parrot what they’ve learned in their own internet marketing courses. By the time the information trickles down to you in that latter case, it’s old news.

Even more important, look for qualified instructors who are in the specific area of freelance writing you want to focus on. For example, if you wanted to learn about high-paying ghostblogging or press releases or other types of PR writing, you might come to someone like me. But I would never offer a course on something like writing for consumer magazines because it simply isn’t what I do.

That said, I don’t recommend taking any “freelance writing” courses until you have gigs coming in to pay for them. If you want to invest up front, you would be far better served doing something most new freelancers I hear from neglect – learning business fundamentals.

Take more general business courses. Read free online business textbooks on the subjects of entrepreneurship, consumer psychology, marketing, copywriting, public relations, and areas relevant to your niche or industry when appropriate.

Knowing the fundamentals is far more valuable than trying to mimic another freelance writer. That’s how you learn the skills to adapt to changing markets and get ahead of the marketing curve rather than taking hand-me-downs from people who have already moved on to bigger and better things.

You have to look like an authority to Google, so do X, Y, and Z.

I mentioned guest posting earlier and the way too many freelance writers are jumping on the insta-expert bandwagon thanks to the internet marketing courses they’re taking (and trying to replicate). This bit of advice ties in.

You might hear you have to build your “authority” status so you rank higher in Google’s search results and more prospects find you there. Advice around doing this is often about building links, or “shareable content.”

You’ll often see a laundry list of must-dos such as:

  1. Guest post on high authority blogs. (I talked about some of the problems with this above.)
  2. Run your own “top list” for your industry. (An outdated and terribly transparent linkbait tactic where bloggers egobait people into sharing their posts for nominations and votes, then sharing the list if they’re on it.)
  3. Build “skyscraper content.” (My utter disdain for this and anyone doing it could be a post all its own. Suffice to say, if this is how you create content, you lack the originality to be a true authority.)

The tactics are problematic. But the overall advice is even more so. It’s about looking like an authority.

And this idea that you, as a new business owner, should (or are even in the position to) become a fast authority figure in your specialty is complete and utter bullshit.

It’s trend-chasing (or algorithm-chasing when it comes to Google rankings). It’s not natural. It’s not sustainable. And it can put your reputation at risk if you aren’t careful.

It’s important to remember that being seen as an authority by Google (meaning they rank you highly) doesn’t mean you are an authority. That’s a status you only earn through experience. And that’s a better place to focus.

When you become a real authority, you’ll see more consistent Google rankings in the long run. You won’t constantly chase marketing trends to keep your rankings from dropping when Google gets tired of the kind of link schemes you were involved in. If you’ve been around a decade or so, you’ve seen waves of this come and go; if you’re new to freelancing, don’t let yourself get caught up in the current one.

So should you care about being seen as an authority? Yes. That’s basic PR – image, visibility, and reputation management. Should it all revolve around Google and today’s version of “authority” for rankings? No. Focus on building experience. Experiment, test, and conduct original research when possible. Share industry insights you’re qualified to weigh in on (which isn’t much without that experience first).

Authority isn’t an overnight phenomenon. It’s about well-deserved trust that comes from doing the work and having something original to say. Don’t neglect link-building in ways that make sense for your specialty. Those search engine rankings do matter. But don’t obsess over them. Don’t expect instant results. And don’t sell your soul for temporary Google glory. It won’t last. And you may leave yourself with a mess to clean up later when another policy or algorithm change comes along.

Did you fall for any bullshit freelance writing advice when you were starting out? If so, what was it, and how did you learn it was bad advice for you?

 

Jenn Mattern is a freelance business writer and blogger with 18 years’ experience. Visit Jenn’s All Freelance Writing, where she’s spent 10 years offering advice, job leads, free tools, and more to help new freelance writers build successful and sustainable businesses.

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Comments

  • Cathy Miller May 12, 2017 at 8:14 am

    Ah, Jenn’s usual post – thorough and filled with great advice. I always learn something from you, Jenn. Even though I’ve been stalking you for years. 😀 I admit I had to look up “skyscraper content.” I never said I was one to keep up with trends.

    My problem in the beginning of my career was purchasing books. More than I could ever get to. I did try a few courses, too. I think it’s part of a writer’s DNA to seek new things to learn. That’s a good thing but can be a detriment.

    The worse advice I probably every received (and ignored) had to do with how I marketed my business under my name. I was told my name alone would not get me in Google rankings. I should market myself as a freelance writer for the city I lived in because people Googled freelance writers in the area the Googler (Ha-new word) lived or worked in. Seriously?

    Nine years later, with multiple clients in my specialty, not one is from the city I live in. I don’t market locally for several reasons. It’s low-paying, and more importantly, it is not where my target market is. Yes, there are businesses that could fit my specialty but the ones who hire freelancers tend to be elsewhere. I have clients in CT, NY, IL, TX, CA, AZ, FL and other places I can’t think of at the moment. I guarantee you not one Googled freelance writer, Boise.

    Reply
    • lwidmer May 12, 2017 at 9:17 am

      Cathy, that’s strange advice you were given! Pretty limiting, too. I live in a large metro area, and I can count on two fingers the clients I’ve had this year and last year who were local. I’m glad you didn’t listen.

      What you said makes much more sense. Look where your target market is.

      Reply
    • Jenn Mattern May 12, 2017 at 2:05 pm

      Yeah. “Local SEO” was a huge deal years ago. I had a couple of clients turn almost all their SEO efforts to it, even when they weren’t looking only for local clients. So they’d try to appeal to multiple localities. Not a smart idea. It got spammed all to hell like other old school SEO. And it was all be they followed BS advice.

      Local SEO is very important if you run a mom-and-pop shop or a chain where you need to appeal to multiple local audiences. But most freelancers don’t fall in that category. So it’s good you knew better than to take advice that didn’t apply to you. 🙂

      For anyone else who doesn’t know what “skyscraper content” is, it’s simply taking other people’s content and trying to write a longer, “better” version that makes you look more authoritative so you can outrank them in Google. It’s derivative. It’s sad. And it’s very old advice of simply writing better versions of what your competition has to say, but someone wanted to pretend they were an expert in something, so they slapped a new name on an old idea (as they often do) and hyped it all to hell. Yay!

      Reply
  • lwidmer May 12, 2017 at 9:19 am

    Jenn, as always you’ve given us a great post with lots to think about. Thank you, my dear!

    I have never cared how I look to Google. I care how I look to my clients. To me, focusing on ranking is just stupid, particularly if I’m not taking a passive approach to marketing. If I’m actively engaging with my core client prospects, I don’t need Google rankings. I’m making something better — a personal connection.

    Reply
    • Jenn Mattern May 12, 2017 at 2:08 pm

      Thanks for having me Lori. 🙂

      Google rankings are more important for some freelance writers than others. If you’re focused mostly on blogging and web copywriting, where clients expect your copy to help with rankings in addition to conversions, it’s always a good idea to make sure your own site or blog ranks well. But those working more on internal comm projects or writing for magazines aren’t going to see the same benefit. I’d also say it’s more important for new freelancers because they haven’t been around building a network and don’t have as many clips to make them attractive via pitching. So in their case any way to attract well-targeted leads can be helpful.

      Reply
  • Paula Hendrickson May 12, 2017 at 12:02 pm

    Great post, Jenn. But like Cathy, I had to look up “skyscraper content.”

    I know for me, targeted marketing sure beats scattershot pitches. It’s less busy work and fewer rejections.

    I can’t recall falling for any bad advice early on, but I sure heard a lot of it. My aunt, who wasn’t a writer and wasn’t even part of the business world, kept advising me with that old chestnut, “Write what you know.” Um, no thanks. One of the things I love most about my job is that I’m constantly learning new things. I’d be bored to tears writing only about things I already know.

    When I first joined LinkedIn, one of those “insta-experts” (love that term!) connected with me and started asking one of my biggest clients, probably hoping I’d put her in touch with my editors. As if! A few months later she tried to get me to buy her course or webinar or whatever it was. I replied by telling her to stop wasting her time with me since I already had way more experience than she did, so I wasn’t in her target demo. She never contacted me again.

    Reply
    • Jenn Mattern May 12, 2017 at 2:22 pm

      I’m with you Paula. I’m grateful I didn’t fall for this kind of stuff early on. I think partly it was because when I started writing for the web, not only did I already come from a business-oriented education and self-employed background in PR, but available colleagues and mentors were very different. Back then, writing for the web was fairly new, so most writers I learned from came from more traditional backgrounds with pitching and networking, and I combined what I learned from them with my PR and social media consulting background to carve my own path. Now, there are so many new writers out there that I couldn’t possibly keep up. And they come in expecting expert status and associated pay within a couple of years at most. And internet marketers play a role in encouraging this bad behavior where we end up with the blind leading the blind because egos are over-inflated early on and everyone feels entitled to that expert status without doing the required work. It’s become less about building actual writing careers and instead pretending to be professional writers so they can make their real (and often short-term) money teaching others, at least until they’re found out or they find another quick money scheme.

      If your LI contact is who I think it is, I’ve had my run-ins too. I made the mistake of asking them about one of their clients once — not for an introduction, but I wanted to know what their editors were like to work with before bothering to pitch, and we knew each other well enough at the time that I felt comfortable asking. They proceeded to tell me how much the publication paid them (around $200 per online article I believe), and said they didn’t think I was at that level yet, so I should start with smaller publications. Little did they know, I was routinely earning over $500 for similar-length online content. But they’d seen me mention my lowest-paying client as an example once when illustrating a point in a post, so they assumed they were somehow “above” me. (FYI, that lowest-paying client on a per-post basis worked out to around $210 per hour, with a consistent weekly contract — one of my best clients for years.) Not telling them to screw off then and there was a real challenge. But at least I saved myself a wasted pitch — not because I wasn’t good enough for their little $200 per post gig (major magazine owned the site, so it was pitiful), but because they weren’t good enough for me. Plus, I got to know a lot about that colleague during that conversation. I’m 99% certain we’re talking about the same person. The inflated sense of self always seems to give them away.

      Reply
      • Paula Hendrickson May 13, 2017 at 11:33 am

        I think we may well be talking about the same person. And the other day I glanced at my LinkedIn contacts—she’s no longer there. (I must have figured out how to remove unwanted contacts and forgotten all about it!)

        This is the same person who claimed to write for a publication I write for. But she hadn’t. When I said I couldn’t find her byline anywhere in the database, she pretended to have confused it with its biggest competitor. Something someone who worked for either one would never do.

        Reply
        • Jenn Mattern May 13, 2017 at 12:12 pm

          Well, I know who that one is, so yep. Definitely the same person. 😉

          I need to clean out LinkedIn contacts one of these days. Just this week I saw my old real estate agent was still there. The one who outright told my husband to lie to me about something when we were trying to sell the house at the time (I insisted on ethical marketing; she wanted to push boundaries). He wasn’t that stupid and immediately told me instead. So I had her removed. Not sure how she skated by in social media contacts all these years. Clearly I don’t pay enough attention to them.

          Reply
  • Georganna Hancock May 12, 2017 at 12:13 pm

    I had little advice when I began freelancing around 1970. My first sale was to Family Circle magazine (one of my top career goals). At the same time, however, I did a few freebies to get clips. It must have worked, because it wasn’t long before I had a lead article in Bon Appetit magazine, and one in Highlights for Children (THE top children’s pub at the time). Essentially I taught myself journalism with Writer’s Digest magazine, directory and books from libraries. No groups, no courses, very little free work for credits. This was in the dark ages of print and snail mail, though. Not sure how to translate it to the fast-paced digital life now, but you’re right – BS is BS.

    Reply
    • lwidmer May 12, 2017 at 1:51 pm

      Georganna, great having you here. I miss you. 🙂 And I love your perspective.

      Highlights was one of my target markets back in the 1980s-90s. Never quite made the cut, but I went on to target their children’s book imprint and got some great personal feedback from their editors. I did manage to get into Child Life.

      That’s how I did it, too. It’s work. The internet may have made things easier as far as research goes, but it’s also made it easy to take the lazy way and apply for jobs. And lazy learning — pay for a book or a course and that will solve your problems? Hardly. Ass in Seat and Fingers to Keyboard solve the problem.

      Reply
      • Georganna Hancock May 12, 2017 at 2:20 pm

        Thanks, Lori. I miss the old blogging community, too. Been wondering if I could get some of it back together with a Facebook page – I still have the names in email accounts. I’d keep the FB account I have now for personal posts … but then I had to retire because of tendonitis!

        Reply
    • Jenn Mattern May 12, 2017 at 2:27 pm

      Thanks for sharing your background Georganna. It sounds like what you had was an essential thing many new freelancers lack — confidence. Not that cockiness some have where they think they’re qualified to teach before they bother to DO, but the confidence in your ability to do the job and the confidence to convince clients of the same. It’s much the same now, only there are more options to choose from and more lousy publications and websites to weed out. You don’t need high profile exploitative credits from sites that don’t pay most of their writers before you can pitch respectable ones that do pay. Just have an idea that’s well-tailored to their audience and persuade them with your pitch.

      Reply
  • Ashley Festa May 12, 2017 at 12:16 pm

    Jenn, what a fantastic post, as usual. I fell into several of these traps when I first started freelancing. The ones I didn’t fall into were the ones I felt guilty about not doing! But I’m one to learn from my mistakes and find better ways to go about running my business in the future. The one I do still feel guilty about is not writing every day. I think I would benefit from writing (for pleasure) more regularly, even if it’s not every day. Life is getting in the way of that right now. But this “season” will be over soon enough, probably sooner than I’d like, so I know I’ll get back to it. Thanks, as always, for your expert advice.

    Reply
    • Jenn Mattern May 12, 2017 at 2:32 pm

      Sometimes that’s all you can do Ashley. While on one hand new freelancers have to be responsible and be able to critically evaluate business advice before implementing it, I do feel for them. There’s so much out there, and the “problem children” are often the loudest, the ones using black hat tactics to rank well and appear authoritative, and therefore are the most visible. So it’s easy to fall into these kinds of traps.

      If it unfortunately happens to you, the best you can do is (as you say) learn from the mistakes and find a better way. If writing every day works for you, by all means go for it. But never feel guilty about it if you don’t, or can’t. You can still build good habits while not sacrificing other things you enjoy for some arbitrary goal.

      Reply
  • Sharon Hurley Hall May 13, 2017 at 9:35 am

    Refreshing and brutally honest, as always, Jenn. 🙂 I’ve heard all those “musts” and more. Like you, I’ve found marketing works better than pitching (for me) and once you get into a rhythm, interesting approaches keep coming into the inbox.

    Also wondering if you’re talking about the same insta-expert I’ve had concerns about. It’s always wise to check credentials from external sources before buying into advice.

    Reply
    • Jenn Mattern May 13, 2017 at 10:10 am

      And ask colleagues you trust before signing up for courses or investing in someone’s advice in any way. Just because people aren’t publicly revolting against an “expert,” it doesn’t mean they’re legit. The new folks they’re targeting often don’t know any better, and colleagues who do know often don’t find them worth the hassle of publicly warning people off. But if you ask outright if they’d recommend someone, you’ll usually find out what you really need to know. Better yet, ask a few people.

      Reply
  • Amandah May 19, 2017 at 11:05 am

    This is a post that every new writer should read. I wish I would have read something like this when I started in 2008.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Mattern May 19, 2017 at 11:49 am

      Thanks Amandah. Sorry it’s nearly a decade too late though! 😉

      Reply
    • lwidmer May 19, 2017 at 4:09 pm

      Amanda, same here. But I’m really glad Jenn’s here to tell us now. 🙂

      Reply
  • Anne Wayman May 19, 2017 at 12:08 pm

    Jenn, there is so much bad advice out there. or just poor advice… all well said. I started well before the internet and leaned heavily on Writer’s Market, both the magazine and the annual. I joined a real manuscripters workshop – supportive but valid critiques plus marketing info from real pros. That kept me out of a lot of trouble. There’s much more work out there today, and there’s many more folks selling poor advice.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Mattern May 19, 2017 at 12:47 pm

      I think the peer groups are unfortunately so different now Anne. It’s gone from writers helping writers to unqualified writers thinking 10 minutes’ more experience means they should get paid to “help” other writers. And while the internet marketing crowd is largely to blame, so are ego and entitlement, both at a level I’ve never seen among colleagues until these past few years. The worst part of watching this change happen is seeing so many true pros go quiet because the know-nothing-I-can’t-parrot crowd is so loud they got tired of competing for the attention of those they were trying to help. I feel truly sad for the next generation who are going to come in thinking these people are actual experts when most real ones simply aren’t around anymore. (And I should note, I’m not talking about all young writers or even only young writers. A lot of folks come in from those marketing backgrounds thinking they know a hell of a lot more about publishing than they do.) I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve thought about leaving this behind. If I didn’t care so much about those newer folks and helping as many as possible avoid getting screwed over, I would have. Goodness knows I have more profitable ways to spend that time.

      Reply
  • Mary Schneider May 19, 2017 at 12:38 pm

    “Authority” is the most frustrating component to me as a writer. I am not an “authority” on anything. I became a freelancer out of necessity after my ex bailed. I was a SAHM for 12 years. I started building my business in the final 2 years of marriage, seeing the signs on the horizon. With two kids to feed, I knew I’d have to have an income and that the minimum wage retail jobs I “qualified” for wouldn’t cut it. Research and writing were (and are) my only marketable skills.

    While it’s great to use the skills and strengths acquired in a pre-freelancing career, not all of us have that foundation. What does a SAHM have to offer the business world? I’ve built my portfolio up slowly by offering quality work and building my articles on reliable source material.

    Everyone’s path is different. At the end of the day, it seems to me, quality is what matters. Offer your clients good service and a quality product, and you’ll succeed.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Mattern May 19, 2017 at 1:01 pm

      Mary… your situation isn’t all that uncommon (though it’s unfortunate be thrown into things when it’s not entirely in your control, and I’m sorry that happened to you).

      I would argue you’re going about things in the right way — or one of them at least. Yes, some of us come from business backgrounds that give us authority at the start. And writers in that position are ones who should be charging more from the start because of the expert knowledge they bring to the table.

      But two things:

      1. Starting out as a truly new freelance writer without that niche experience is fine. You’re still building authority as you go. In your case it sounds like you’re not building it in a niche specialty so much as specializing in a certain type of writing through reliable reporting (and perhaps even specific project types or client types – I’m not sure from your comment). There’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is when a new writer comes in thinking they don’t have to do what you’re doing, acting like an expert from Day One in things they actually know very little about.

      2. Keep in mind that authority doesn’t only come from professional experience. It can also come from life experience, passions, and hobbies. For example, if a new writer came to me asking for advice on things they might be able to specialize in, and they came from your background, here’s what I’d tell them:

      Your family situation makes you an authority in certain subject matter. You’re a parent. You’ve done through a separation and become a single parent in the process. You spent 12 years managing a household while taking care of your family. Just think of all the skills you picked up in the process — you had to keep things organized, you managed schedules, perhaps you managed housework or meals… make a list of the things you did on a routine basis for those 12 years, and you’ll see that you have expertise you may not have considered. Any of that can be tailored to a freelance writing career.

      That might mean writing for parenting or home magazines. Perhaps you’d write for women’s publications writing about the things you’ve experienced. But it can translate to business writing too. Women are a huge consumer market, especially moms. That gives you unique insight when writing copy for businesses and products targeting that buyer group.

      Don’t sell yourself short. Quality writing is extremely important. And you can get by on that if you choose to be a generalist. But specialists are paid more for a reason — they can bring insight and ideas generalists can’t. So if you ever decide you want to try specializing in an industry or niche, depending on what you choose, you might have more authority than you think. And if not, keep doing what you’re doing. You’re building authority in your type of writing as your portfolio grows.

      Reply
      • Jennifer Mattern May 19, 2017 at 1:03 pm

        Please forgive the few typos in there. I hit “submit” a bit too soon. 🙁

        Reply
        • Mary Schneider May 19, 2017 at 1:27 pm

          By the way, I love this blog. I feel as if I have a lot to learn. So glad I found it- and incidentally, I followed the link from the Twitter page of Search Influence, one of the companies I sometimes write for.

          Reply
          • lwidmer May 19, 2017 at 4:14 pm

            I’m glad you like it, Mary! I hope you find things here that help you push your business forward.

      • Mary Schneider May 19, 2017 at 1:22 pm

        A little more background- The majority of what I write these days is social media, blog, and web page content. That’s been my bread-and-butter, but you’re absolutely right, many of those jobs don’t pay sustainable wages. You really have to look for companies that pay reasonable rates. It’s a waste of time to write blogs for a company that pays $5/1000 words. I can make more working retail.

        When I started, I did work for a content curation company that didn’t pay well but gave me experience in discipline and deadlines, before moving on to a better-paying version that I still write for, but less regularly as more lucrative clients take up more of my time. Individual client contracts have come from sites like Upwork (formerly oDesk,) and ELance, as well as through old school friends who went into business and refer clients to me. I’ve written about ladies bedroom slippers, construction equipment, olive oil, fashion for larger ladies, and how to make better cheese at home. The trick to getting work through Upwork et al is sifting through the listings for actual jobs- they do exist- among the chaff of the $5/1000 word postings. It takes time, but I’ve gotten several long-term, good paying clients that way, including one I worked with for over 5 years.

        The problem with seeking the niche of parenting is that I’m no expert. Like most mothers, I came into it unprepared and failed on many levels. We’ve had success, too, of course, and I do occasionally write about parenting topics, as well as my own struggle with PTSD, but I haven’t attempted to capitalize on those topics because it’s such a crowded field and paying gigs are difficult to come by. I’m sure you know that HuffPo- one of the largest and mosts prestigious parenting markets- doesn’t actually pay its writers. Parenting advice, unless you’re a psychologist or have the time to devote to creating a niche blog like Scary Mommy, is a field overflowing with voices.

        When I began freelancing, I was forced to take paying jobs wherever I could find them simply because if I didn’t work, we didn’t eat. Writing on spec was not a viable option, because the electric company doesn’t like hearing “I’ll pay the bill on Friday if Parents Mag takes my article.”
        I didn’t, and don’t have the option of putting the time into building and marketing a blog. It’s only been in recent months that I’ve considered creating a professional blog from which I could potentially expect to generate income.

        It’s taken 10 years to become established enough that I can pick and choose clients, but it’s happening for me. I work with a company that builds professional LinkedIn profiles for high profile business people, an interesting and reasonably lucrative venture. I’m learning the skills that will, I hope, let me climb higher. Coming from a blue-collar background, this has been an adventure. 🙂
        I know I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way, and I don’t feel qualified to teach! lol For me, it’s been a matter of survival. Success is feeding the kiddos and keeping the lights on. So far, so good. 🙂

        Reply
        • lwidmer May 19, 2017 at 4:18 pm

          Wait. You’ve been doing this for ten years and don’t yet consider yourself an expert? I think you’ve more than proven you can master any topic in that specialty!

          Let me put it this way — we’re all five-minute scholars, as I like to call it. We don’t have to be experts in all things. We have to be knowledgeable about our niche enough to write about it. And honey, if you’re a parent, you’re an expert. 😉

          Don’t get hung up on whatever invisible criteria you think you need in order to consider this your specialty, Mary. To me, understanding the topics well and knowing people in the industry helps you create a presence. That helps you attract clients. As you say, you’re already seeing the results of your focused efforts. What does it take for a man to call himself an expert? An opinion and a little bit of background.

          Time to think like a man. 😉

          Reply
          • Mary Schneider May 19, 2017 at 4:28 pm

            ROFL “think like a man…” That made me LOL.

            I think part of my reluctance to call myself “expert” is what Jen warns against- amateurs leading other newbs. I still work 10hrs a week in retail for a steady paycheck because freelancing is so sporadic. I have months in which I’m quite solvent, and then others… not so much. lol I could budget better, perhaps, if I didn’t have teens and a 200yo farmhouse. Crisis is the norm around here.

            My tax return shows me I make a reasonable income but it doesn’t seem like it. I do miss having a writing group though… Years ago I was the owner and moderator of The Children’s Book Writers Cafe- back when MSN groups were micro-versions of Facebook. We had 1,000 members at one point, and 10 critique groups. It was so much fun. I didn’t consider myself a leader; it was more of a peer group, but it was neat to see people progress through their efforts in the critique groups and end up publishing.

            It’s not easy to feel as if you know what you’re doing when raising teens. Parents of teens are the dumbest people alive, did you know? lol We get a lot smarter when they hit their 20s, but right now I don’t know anything aat all. 😉 Perhaps one day, when my kids are successfully raising grandkids, I’ll feel like an “expert” parent. 😉

          • Jennifer Mattern May 19, 2017 at 4:31 pm

            What Lori said!

            And don’t stress over crowded markets. Just look into narrower niches within it. Again, I’m not saying this is right in your case, but let’s say you were a parent of toddlers. Instead of generally targeting parenting magazines with tips and advice, you might target baby product manufacturers to write product descriptions or other types of marketing copy (or write content for their newsletters or blogs). That’s much more specific an area to stand out in, and you would have had kids who recently went through that age the companies are targeting (meaning you fully understand the concerns of their target market). Maybe not the right fit for you right now, but that’s just an example of how you might turn a saturated niche into a targeted specialty where you can thrive. 🙂

            And who knows? You might love this work with LinkedIn users and find it’s something you want to do more of independently later. This is the start of another potential specialty. If you keep your eyes open, you’ll see you have a lot of options. Generalization isn’t one I recommend, but if it suits you, do what works until you’re ready for something else. But with 10 years under your belt, I suspect you have plenty you can pull from if you ever want to take another course. 🙂

          • Mary Schneider May 19, 2017 at 4:39 pm

            Aw you gals are awesome. You’ve definitely given me some things to think about. It’s so easy to focus on survival- as I said, blue-collar background- my parents worked so we could eat, and I have much the same mindset. My sister was the first in my family to complete college, that sort of thing. The idea of purposefully building a business is a bit foreign, but necessary to keep growing.
            I figured I’d succeeded the day my Mom asked when I was “going to get a real job,” and I answered “Mom, I can’t. I can’t afford to take work that pays minimum wage, or I lose money!” It seems it was more of a milestone than a destination. There is still adventure ahead. 🙂

        • lwidmer May 22, 2017 at 8:43 am

          Mary, you said: “I think part of my reluctance to call myself “expert” is what Jen warns against- amateurs leading other newbs. I still work 10hrs a week in retail for a steady paycheck because freelancing is so sporadic.”

          Get out of your own head and your own way. Let’s switch up your perspective: You are an entrepreneur with a growing consultancy (freelancing) and a part-time gig until you get the business full liquid. It’s all about the spin. 😉

          And what Jenn talks about with the insta-experts are the people who try teaching other writers how to do jobs they themselves haven’t done. That’s different from your situation. You’re writing about an area you clearly understand and are living.

          Reply
          • Mary Schneider May 22, 2017 at 10:45 am

            Easier said than done, but I am trying to shift my focus. It’s easy when caught up in the constant struggle of day-to-day running a household, the never ending bills, and worrying about teens, to dismiss accomplishments as just doing what needs to be done.

            I’m going to print this reply off and frame it next to my desk! 🙂

    • lwidmer May 19, 2017 at 4:11 pm

      Mary, I think you found out exactly what a SAHM has to offer — plenty.

      Same here. I was a SAHM, then a divorced mom with no job prospects. After working my way up only to have a new boss get rid of me, I turned to freelancing.

      You’re so right. Every single path is different. There are no absolutes in this profession other than you can’t stop trying. 🙂

      Reply
  • Elizabeth May 19, 2017 at 2:19 pm

    What a great post! I love Jenn’s blog and podcast and really think this is great no BS advice. It is hard to wade through all of the Instagram posts and social media updates from other freelancers to decide what works, what doesn’t, and more importantly, what works for you.

    Reply
    • lwidmer May 19, 2017 at 4:13 pm

      Elizabeth, thanks for commenting. I’m with you. I don’t have time (or energy, to be honest) to wade through the junk to try locating pearls. I have to work at it my way and hope it sticks.

      Jenn’s great, isn’t she? 🙂

      Reply
    • Jennifer Mattern May 19, 2017 at 4:19 pm

      Thanks Elizabeth. 🙂

      I think one of the most important tricks is just learning when to tune it all out. Focus on fundamentals, then don’t get caught up reading dozens of posts. It’s far better to pick up a few basics and start putting things to good use. You’ll learn, tweak, and improve as you grow. 🙂

      Reply
  • Katy May 19, 2017 at 5:57 pm

    So I am probably the new kid that this post is being targeted at. Hi! 🙂

    Thank you, Lori and Jenn, for such great content. You both have fantastic platforms for advice!

    I’m not necessarily unique, but I do feel much the same as Mary who commented above. I’m single, in my 20s, and I enjoy writing, but have never done it professionally. My degree is in History. I work in and educational publishing & technology company, but have only been there for 3.5 years. Before that, I worked retail and fast food service. I would like to write professionally, which is why I’m reading this kind of content and have been doing so for the past few months. I’ve seen so much of what you’ve described, Jenn, and have fallen for a couple of the traps. My bad.

    That above was to say that I, too, struggle with “authority” and finding a “niche”. I want to write to help supplement my income, but also to help hone two of the most transferrable skills I have: writing and researching. Not trying to say “woe is me”, but there’s just SO MUCH content to sift through that it’s overwhelming at times to see what’s right and what’s not. It’s refreshing to hear that some of the older methods – finding local publications, using your network – aren’t dead. (I may be pulling some of Lori’s older content with this comment, but it’s what’s at the front of my mind right now.)

    Reply
    • Katy May 19, 2017 at 5:58 pm

      Also, please excuse my typos. Hit “submit” too soon!

      Reply
    • Mary Schneider May 19, 2017 at 6:06 pm

      A History degree and 3.5 years in publishing? Sounds to me as if you have a solid foundation already!
      Honey, I came into this with nothing but a few writing conferences under my belt, years of scribbling awful poems, and a novel that had never seen the light of day. No degree until 2013, and now I have only my Associates in Literature and Writing.

      If I can do this, you certainly can. Bon chance! 🙂

      Reply
      • lwidmer May 22, 2017 at 8:39 am

        Mary, sounds like you’re more than qualified to be making a lot more! I have a degree in business communications. That helps with corporate clients, but it’s not required. Everything I do I could have learned on my own (and much of it I did learn on my own).

        Katy, I have a friend who has a degree in finance. She’s a writer. Yes, she writes about finance, but mostly about marketing. Your degree can be a stepping stone, but it doesn’t have to pigeonhole you.

        Reply
        • Mary Schneider May 22, 2017 at 10:48 am

          I’m slowly building up to better-paying gigs but finding them is a challenge. It’s definitely about the networking. Most of my best clients have come to me through word-of-mouth.

          Reply
    • Jennifer Mattern May 19, 2017 at 6:37 pm

      Hi Katy! Like Mary said, it sounds like you already have a foundation you can build on if you choose to focus on those areas. But more important is this — you do not HAVE to be an “authority.” Not yet. You can freelance before that. You can make decent money before that. My concern is when people try to teach before that. That’s when a freelancer is just playing games with other people’s livelihood to make a buck. And that’s a huge problem these days.

      Here’s the thing. “Authority” used to mean something. Now? It just means you’re (temporarily) well-ranked in Google, and people are naive enough to think that means you’re an expert. It used to mean legit expertise and a certain trustworthiness.

      The latter is what you should still be focused on building. That’s how you’ll get to the point where you’re THE writer in your specialty area that clients seek out — if you want that.

      And the things you’ve mentioned, like using your network, are fundamentals. They’ll never go out of style. What tends to change are the tools. Focus on the fundamentals and you can adapt to those kinds of changes faster than most. Ignore the tricks like things to manipulate search engine rankings. They don’t last, so you end up stuck in a perpetual game of playing catch-up.

      So, in your case, I’d say focus on a niche if you can. But forget authority for now. It’s important. And you’ll get there. But there’s no substitute for simply doing the work. That takes time.

      Is history something you’d like to tie into your freelance career? Given your professional background in educational publishing, have you considered writing things like textbook supplements? If that’s something you’re interested in, you should look into John Soares. That’s a specialty of his, so connecting with him might help. He’d be a good person to get some background info from. 🙂

      Reply
    • lwidmer May 22, 2017 at 8:36 am

      Katy, welcome to the blog. Happy to have you participating!

      Jenn addressed beautifully the “authority” part, so let me speak to the niche. Truth? You don’t need one starting out. Yes, it makes life TONS easier later on (and marketing becomes easier because you’re now focused in a particular area), but if you don’t know what your niche is, don’t stress. Just write. Believe it or not, some niches come by happy accident. Mine did. You’ll see yourself eventually leaning toward certain areas, and maybe you’ll be interested in following.

      Trying to force a niche before your ready will frustrate the hell out of you. What do you like writing about? Start focusing there for now.

      Reply